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Friday, 10 December 2010 19:46

A stand up guy with an upright bass: An interview with Paul Kowert of the Punch Brothers

A stand up guy with an upright bass: An interview with Paul Kowert of the Punch Brothers
Written by Matt Champion
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Chris Thile had the idea of forming a string quintet and assembled the Punch Brothers in 2006. After his folk trio Nickel Creek went on hiatus in 2007, the band recorded the album Punch in 2008 and Paul Kowert replaced Greg Garrison as bassist for the supporting tour.

At the Old Rock House, before the band's Thursday night show, Paul was kind enough to take a few moments out of his busy schedule to sit down and discuss the past, present and future of his art and the music of the Punch Brothers.

Matt Champion: Who are your musical influences?

Paul Kowert: Well, there’s a huge list of influences. The music we make is ultimately some kind of subconscious amalgam of all of them. As a bass player, I am greatly influenced by the work of Edgar Meyer and most of the guys in the band are influenced by (Punch Brothers band leader Chris) Thile and the music they made together. Also, I love Radiohead. There’s a wider array of genres, some people like to put them in genres, but they’re really connected by being good music. It’s really kind of hard to say that there’s one style that any of us are ‘the most’ influenced by.

What made you choose the double bass as your instrument?

It started as a joke, actually. I started playing the violin when I was three. My mom got me going Suzuki (Method for Violin), my sister played and I wanted to, too. When I was nine I wanted to participate in the fourth grade string ensemble and I didn’t want to play violin with all the starting music. I wanted to start something new like everyone else was, so I started bass. I talked to my mom about it in the car and she said ‘Why don’t you play the big bass?’ and we laughed. Now I’m not laughing when I haul that thing to the airport.

You mentioned Edgar Meyer. I understand that you were a student of his?


What was it like learning from someone who is essentially a living master of the instrument?

It was a great experience. He is a tremendous teacher. He’s good at approaching every player according to their needs and it’s been a really great experience to play for him and get his feedback as well as see how he does what he does up close so I can really pick it apart.

You’ve shared the stage with some of the biggest names in music, like Yo Yo Ma, David Grisman, Mark O’Connor and Mike Marshall.

Between the whole group, yeah. Not me personally.

Is there anyone that you haven’t played with that you’d like to?

Oh, of course. It’s exciting that there’s a world full of great musicians. It’s a small world and it gets smaller the more you’re in it so it’s great to be around such inspiring musicians all the time.

Speaking of, you played Late Night with David Letterman in November. What was it like to get on the stage and jam with Steve Martin?

Oh, it was thrilling. The Punch Brothers got to open for Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers for a handful of shows last summer and he awarded Noam Pikelny, our banjo player, with an award for bluegrass banjo. He’s been a big supporter of anyone playing those instruments in any semblance of connection to the traditional way they’ve been played.

Antifogmatic is the first recording that you’ve done with the Punch Brothers even though you’ve been a member since 2008?

That’s right.

Is the band’s approach to music different in the studio than it is on stage?

No, no. In fact, more than most bands they’re probably more similar. We’re writing music with playing it live in mind. For instance, with all of the music on Antifogmatic all of the instrument were recorded live without overdubbing. The point being that we can play it the same way. Not exactly the same way, things change with the improvisation, but we can play the arrangements live and sing them live. That’s more than probably most groups making records, we’re geared towards that.

You also play with Mike Marshall’s Big Trio. Do you prefer larger or smaller ensembles?

They both have their benefits. I have a larger voice, perhaps, in the trio, but I also love being the bass player. I play more of a fundamental, supportive role in the Punch Brothers and both are equally rewarding.

The Punch Brothers are the focus of an upcoming Mark Meatto documentary called How to Grow a Band. Did you find the band dynamic change while the film crews were around?


Everything stayed the same?

Yeah. [Laughs] There’s more to come on that.

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